COLUMN: US life expectancy dropped due to suicide and overdose rates

The general consensus right now is that the United States economy is strong, having raised every year for the past decade. One would therefore expect U.S. life expectancy to follow an upward trend as well, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recently revealed that for the second time in three years, life expectancy fell to 78.6 in 2017 compared to 78.7 in 2016.

The number of deaths in 2017, 2.8 million, “was the most deaths in a single year since the government began counting more than a century ago,” according to the Associated Press.

At first glance, it could be argued that maybe this is just a result of an increasing population — the more people alive, the more people die. However, if we break down the numbers, the picture becomes more nuanced and concerning.

The decrease in life expectancy was primarily driven by rises in suicide and drug overdose rates. Overdose deaths increased by 9.6 percent from the previous year and suicide rates by 3.7 percent.

The contrast between 2017 rates and 1999 rates is even more cause for alarm. The suicide rate in 1999 was 10.5 per 100,000 deaths, while today it has risen to 14.5, the highest rate in 50 years. Similarly in 2017, the drug overdose death rate was 21.7 per 100,000 deaths, while in 1999 that number was only 6.1.

There are two big reasons why life expectancy fell. First, the steady decline in deaths from heart disease has normally been enough to offset increases in deaths from other causes — recently, however, that rate has stopped falling. And second, drug overdoses and suicides in 2017 most affected the age range of 25 to 44 years of age. Deaths in this range influence life expectancy numbers more significantly.

In other words, as the CDC director Robert Redfield said in a statement, “We are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, to conditions that are preventable.”

It’s worth noting that of the 47,600 deaths from opioids, 28,500 were from synthetic opioids, mainly fentanyl. That is a 45 percent increase from the previous year.

Although the U.S. began receiving $1 billion in 2017 to fight the opioid crisis, they should have received funds as early as 2015 when substance abuse problems began growing. At the very least, now that President Trump has declared the situation a national emergency, we may finally address the problem properly.

One way to do that, as Michael Botticelli of the Grayken Center for Addiction at Boston Medical Center points out, is to expand access to naloxone, which reverses opioid overdoses. It would be appropriate and fair if health insurers were required to cover this drug.

Also, as pointed out in an earlier IDS editorial, funding should go into finding alternative solutions to pain relief that don’t involve opioids. For example, scientists are investigating the pain nerve cells to see if there is a way to turn them off directly.

It is difficult for researchers to tell why suicide rates have risen, but some suggest that Americans feel increasingly hopeless about the future. The Associated Press’s VoteCast survey, which was conducted during the midterm election, found that “about half of voters nationwide said they expect life in America for the next generation to be worse off than it is today.” 

The widening income gap, increases in racial discrimination, gun violence and a range of other ubiquitous issues are probably contributing to this perception.

But proven methods of suicide prevention have been identified, so we know ways to fix the problem. The barrier is that the efforts have been scaled up to a national level, and therefore both the federal and state governments need to put funds into making that possible.

The U.S. touts itself as the richest country in the world. In order for the country’s wealth to matter, though, that prosperity must reach the citizens. We cannot have a nation where the people die young.

Fortunately, indexes such as life expectancy help us determine what problems we need to address. Let us act on that data so that we can ensure prosperity and happiness for all. 

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